The Henna Artist

She has a steady hand, heaps of patience and kind of precise focus that quite honestly, is a little mysterious. Aneesa Karim, a Trinidadian self-taught artist, began her work as a mehndi designer eight years ago after friends at the University of West Indies, St Augustine (UWI) and husband encouraged her to turn her hobby into something viable. “My husband (Shiva) and best friend never doubts my abilities, and he supports my ambitions constantly. I don’t think I would’ve overcome many of the challenges I’ve faced, or experienced certain opportunities without him. He also keeps me grounded, most of the time.”

As an individual working through emotion, Karim also infuses a healthy dose of heavy intellectualism to her process. Not one to conform to societal confines or artistic limitations, Karim defines art as something less tangible.“Being an artist is a sort of madness. It is a constant battle to manifest the mind and emotion into the physical. To experience henna is to bond with another; and for an artist, it opens up the mind to much more than the physical. It’s my personal challenge for perfection, a constant struggle that drives me to become better and better with each new piece I create.”

Henna is indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, Arabia, and South Asia. The plant grows better in dry, arid regions, and produces higher levels of tannins (or tannic acid, a naturally occurring dye molecule), in very hot climates. Henna that is cultivated in these regions produces the best stains. Henna that is cultivated in these regions produces the best stains. Whereas jagua is a fruit-based dye that is capable of producing blue-black stains on the top layer of the skin. It comes from the South American and Caribbean regions, and has been utilised by the Indigenous peoples for the purposes of body ornamentation, fabric dyes and medicine.

Karim, 29, petite and youthful-looking, exudes a rare combination of charm and humble self-awareness. Underneath her steady demeanour, however, is an artist who is also now struggling with her own internal dialogue. “I think too much: damn, that lotus motif’s not centred, but the rest of the design is nice enough, though. Skin stretches and contorts anyway; she’s wearing bangles, no one will notice. Except me, forever, in photos.’’

Karim, however, understands how to read people’s energies in a way that allows her creative licence when deciding on whether to work with a bride. Since she prefers not working with set patterns, Karim relies on her connection with the bride and the trust that forms during the preliminary meetings to discuss details and ideas. In doing so, Karim is able to tap into the clients’ personality and also the things that bring them joy. In one fond recollection, Karim noted how devoted a particular bride was to her small Pug dog which she included in her mehndi while another bride opted to have her love of Harry Potter etched on her fingers by way of the symbol of the Deathly Hallows and a famous line from a beloved character Severus Snape: “Always.’’

Describing the process in more detail, Karim added, “While wedding mehndi is my main source of income, what drives me is my personal mission to become better at creating work with purpose and my passion for drawing. Work of this nature can’t be rushed. It’s all a learning curve, and it teaches me not only about the people I interact with, but myself. It also helps build my work ethic and sense of professionalism; and it makes me more emotionally aware of individuals and situations.” Karim pointed out that the jagua gel was somewhat more difficult to work with owing to its gelatinous-like consistency. Unlike other artists, henna designers use the human body as their canvas which is a definite challenge as it can take up to two days to complete henna application to the hands and feet of brides.

Not wanting to succumb to the confines of a conventional career or workspace, Karim slowly began expanding her mehndi work on brides and other wedding guests. To stretch her abilities further, Karim also works with other materials, such as candles, paper and even wedding cakes. After she received a request from master cake baker Angelique Najjar, Karim worked on a white, iced, many-tiered cake where she piped icing onto the cake itself to create traditional paisley mehndi. To keep her mind occupied and creativity flowing, Karim also works with pencils, watercolours and design software, though, on a much smaller scale.

My art is temporary, but the experience I hope to manifest, should keep. Non-attachment is the song I keep singing. It’s easy to do with mehndi. However, when it comes to my drawing and paintings that I’ve achieved satisfaction with, it’s hard to part with them.

Drawing was her first passion, and then came painting, more specifically, water colour painting. “I’m impatient with it, but it’s what I enjoy most. I can’t rush it, or force it; it’s a mood thing. I like trying new, unfamiliar designs. Traditional is nice, but not challenging enough. I need to get better.”

While Karim meanders along the artistic pathway, willing to let her creativity unwind, often in a grassy knoll somewhere in Trinidad, she maintains one thing throughout: “I love drawing on people with henna. It’s therapeutic. It’s relaxing most of the times.”

During her time in Scotland while her husband was studying, Karim attended a workshop in Bradford, England back in 2016 where she met other notable henna artists such as Kiran Sahib, Connie Tu, Riffat Bihar and Henna Visa who inspired her early on in her career. Collectively, the artists have nearly quarter million followers on social media, making their art and business, a rather lucrative one.

Even more so, Karim added, “It (henna artistry) builds community. It makes the art form more respected. Why shouldn’t it be respected? It takes discipline, focus, patience, and creative affinity. I couldn’t help but think about the situation with the henna industry back in Trinidad and Tobago, based on my observation over the years. It is saturated with persons doing henna art, but with a lack of discipline amongst them. Most do it for an easy dollar, without a true desire to earn the respect that the art form deserves.”

A few days after the interview, when Karim was finally ready to answer one of my questions about her creative process, I received a reply more akin to poetry instead of prose—a rare glimpse into the woman who is fast becoming the artist she always knew she would be:

Masterpieces cannot be forced, but you have to work at it.

It takes a great deal of time, effort and observation.

It’s a repetitive process.

It’s rarely right the first time.

Sometimes it’s instinctive; sometimes it requires practice.

It tests your sanity.

*It should be noted that black henna/mehndi has been deemed highly toxic due to the presence of the chemical para-phenylenediamine (PPD). This ingredient is odourless, a potential carcinogenic, and transdermal toxin that may cause chemical burns, painful itching, blisters, rashes, open sores, severe dermatitis, scarring, and lifelong allergies. Natural henna and jagua vs black henna are not the same. Be sure to ask your mehndi artist more details about the type of henna they use.